Paul Pillar

What Ends Nuclear Weapons Programs

A recurring canard, which neoconservatives are especially fond of perpetuating, is that the late Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi gave up his unconventional weapons programs (and his involvement in international terrorism) because the war in Iraq scared him into thinking he would also be a target of regime-changing U.S. military force. This notion serves the dual neocon purposes of suggesting that military force is the fail-safe solution to nuclear proliferation problems and salvaging some supposed value from the blunder known as the Iraq War. Joshua Muravchik repeats the notion in a piece this week (although Muravchik, unlike most other neocons, has in the past acknowledged that the Iraq War may have been a bad idea to begin with). The trouble with this notion is that Qaddafi had made his decision about ending his weapons programs and getting out of international terrorism years earlier, when the Iraq War was still only an out-of-reach dream in the fevered minds of out-of-power neocons. Following the Libyan dictator's decision, secret talks with the United States began in 1999 (which I know firsthand because I participated in the initial rounds of the talks). At most, later events in Iraq might have helped to give the later rounds of negotiations a final nudge; they certainly were not a cause of Qaddafi's drastic redirection of policy, which he had decided on previously.

The lesson of the Libya experience, as far as ending nuclear-weapons programs or other undesirable behaviors is concerned, is clear. The experience was a success thanks first to several years of multilateral sanctions, which Qaddafi found both economically and politically wearying, and second to the willingness of the United States (and Britain) to engage with Qaddafi's regime and to strike a deal with it that involved, among other things, a normalization of relations. The Clinton and Bush administrations both deserve credit for providing that critical second ingredient, notwithstanding the distaste of dealing with a loathsome regime with American blood on its hands.

The treatment of the Libyan case is perhaps the most egregious but not the only mischaracterization of historical cases by Muravchik, who contends that only military force and regime change have ended nuclear-weapons programs and that sanctions and diplomacy have failed to do so. He invokes World War II as one of his examples because “Allied armies stopped Hitler from getting the bomb.” I always thought that World War II in Europe had to do with a few other things as well. He counts Ukraine and Kazakhstan as instances of regime change turning a state away from nuclear weapons, which is a bit of a stretch given that they were new states carved out of a stripped-down empire and that the legacy state of that empire—i.e., Russia—continues to have a large arsenal of nuclear weapons today. He also states that “apartheid's fall ended South Africa's nuclear quest,” while failing to note that it was the white apartheid government that ended South Africa's nuclear program in the late 1980s, before apartheid was dismantled in the 1990s.

Muravchik's examples of sanctions and diplomacy supposedly failing are curious because in most of those examples sanctions and diplomacy were not tried or given a chance. He cites, for example, Israel. When was Israel ever sanctioned for its nuclear-weapons program? After the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was negotiated in the late 1960s, there was a brief period when the United States urged Israel to sign it. But as with most of the rest of U.S.-Israeli history, the Johnson administration caved to Israeli desires and shipped Israel the advanced fighter aircraft and other weapons it was seeking at the time even though Israeli never signed the NPT. Then the Nixon administration reached a secret deal with Israel promising never to make an issue of the Israeli nuclear arsenal as long as the Israelis did not openly declare it.

Another example mentioned is India, which also was never subjected to significant persuasion or pressure on its nuclear program. The French were practically cheering on the Indians as India prepared its series of nuclear tests in 1998, and the United States later reached its own deal with New Delhi that bestowed a U.S. seal of approval on the Indian nuclear program, weapons and all. Then there is North Korea, whose first nuclear-weapons test in 2006 was preceded by several years in which the Bush administration eschewed diplomacy as a means of dealing with the issue. The administration did so by refusing any bilateral talks with Pyongyang and also vacating terms of the Framework Agreement that was a basis for the alternative diplomatic forum of the six-party talks.

Muravchik invokes the Israeli strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 as a supposed example of successful use of military force, but it instead was a distinct failure and clearly not an instance of getting a regime, in Muravchik's words, to "turn away from nuclear weapons." The Iraqis instead responded by redoubling their nuclear efforts using an alternative route to the production of fissile material; a decade later they were far closer to having a nuclear weapon than they were in 1981.

A further lesson in all this is that it is possible to stretch history however one wants to try to prove whatever one wants, no matter how much an objective rendering of events points in the opposite direction.